quartet top

Paul Nicholas as Wilfred, Sue Holderness as Jean, Jeff Rawle as Reginald and Wendi Peters as Cissy.


Birmingham Rep


The only really good thing about growing old is that it is better than the alternative – being guest of honour at the crematorium as retired baritone Wilfred puts it so succinctly in Ronald Harwood’s 1999 play Quartet.

This is a play all about old age, about living in the shadow of the past, set in a retirement home for opera singers and musicians.

Here we have the serious, studious and, let us be honest, rather dull former tenor Reginald played by Birmingham born actor Jeff Rawle, best known for Silas Blissett in Hollyoaks and the wonderful George Dent, the editor in Drop The Dead Donkey. Rawle is an ex-King Edward VI, Aston pupil incidentally.

Reginald likes everything to be just so and even tempered, except he shows flashes of anger, temper, despair when the past comes too close – and he has a running battle with nurse Angelique about marmalade, a battle which instantly explodes into a foul-mouthed rant at her if she hoves into view in the distance beyond the terrace, and subsides just as quickly when she vanishes, as if nothing had happened.

Then there is contralto Cecily, Cissy, played by Wendi Peters, who spends much of her time listening on headphones to a reissued CD of the quartet from Rigoletto, Bella figlia dell’amore, where she sings Maddalena to Reginald’s Duke.

It is another wonderful performance, with some lovely touches of age such as the bandage on the leg, the bent foot and splayed legs when she is seated, the slow haste of complaining limbs when she rushes slowly and her assured ignorance as she skirts around the fringes of dementia.

Paul Nicholas appears to be enjoying himself immensely as retired baritone Wilfred, the joker in the pack whose thoughts tend to drift permanently in the direction of the carnel – if we are honest they never seem to leave there.

Yet, despite his obsession, he was the only one with anything approaching a successful marriage – 35 years until his wife died of cancer - which has created a hatred of doctors, the profession that couldn't save her.. He sang Rigoletto, the Duke's jester, on the reissued CD.

Bella figlia

Wilfred, Jean, Reginald and Cissy return to Verdi's Rigoletto quartet in all it's glory

Cissy had a reputation, and a lot of it, rather than a husband while Reginald had a short-lived marriage to opera super-star, soprano Jean Horton, a marital moment anchored quietly in the calm waters of the past – until the arrival of his ex at the home blows up a storm.

Sue Holderness, much loved as Marlene in Only Fools and Horses, has moved way up market as the rather self-important, at least on the face of it, Jean, fallen on hard(ish) times and now having to slum it with retirees, some of whom were merely chorus members.

The Rigoletto quartet CD had been reissued because it was a internationally renowned performance, and Jean had sung the part of Gilda. The quartet were back together and with a gala concert to mark Verdi’s birthday approaching, with every resident expected to perform, you hardly need Mensa membership to work out where the plot is heading.

The play is essentially a comedy, a little close to home, I suspect, for some audience members of more mature years who perhaps might struggle to remember what the play they saw last night . . . or was it the night before . . . was called. But that is what age does to you.

It is funny and witty, at times sad, and director Peter Rowe and the cast, average age 64 or 69 without Peters,  have added some wonderful touches which only those of more advanced years will appreciate – or perhaps more accurately, recognise.

We see Reginald and Jean reach a truce but we never get to know any of the characters, apart from references to their careers, until the final scenes as they prepare for their performance of the famous Quartet, and for the first time we hear something about them rather then their careers.

There is Cissy, all alone and regretting the fact that despite all her affairs she never found a relationship that fulfilled her, Jean, with a string of marriages, now a charity case in a retirement home and with a deep regret about Reginald, and Reginald who had never got over Jean. As for Wilfred? His reputation as a philanderer throughout his 35 years of marriage was much exaggerated it seems. Womaniser Wilfred was all talk, not a doer it transpired.

There are poignant, sad moments, but this is a comedy with no intention of dipping much below the surface of old age, and in the hands of four . . . mature actors . . . who are clearly enjoying themselves it is great fun.

A single set with four parts for older actors has made the play a firm favourite with amateur companies. But every production I have seen, including this one, has the same problem. Without giving too much of the plot away, making the final scene interesting for getting on for four minutes is going to be a struggle for any cast.

Not only does it leave the play up in the air somewhat, but after holding interest for almost two and a half hours, lets you down at the end.

Still, with the proviso that the ending, like Cissy’s relationships, leaves you unfulfilled, the rest is a splendid night’s entertainment with an excellent cast timing lines to perfection and revelling in their roles with an enthusiasm which is infectious. To 10-03-18

Roger Clarke


Index page Rep Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre